In 2009 I directed Patrick McQuillan in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape in a recital hall in Shanghai. Patrick and I had been part of the same incoming cohort at The British International School. I was the new IB Theatre Arts guy, Patrick taught KS3.
Settling in, I hadn’t thought too much about Patrick. He seemed a bit of a loner, eccentric, wore ethnic clothing to work, walked tall and straight and spoke his mind. Not likely a drinking buddy or a family man, I decided.
Besides, I rarely saw him; he was over in the primary building whereas I had a tiny slant-roofed office in the foyer of the school theatre, which was really built for mass-scale communist party headmaster speeches every morning. With blasted air conditioning it was as intimate as the arctic.
One morning, the theatre was packed with 500 kids and parents for the annual primary school puppet show. The rafters were coming off to the antics of hand-made sock animals that floated centre-stage above the counter of a make-shift stall, dwarfed in space but well held in the spotlights.
The hidden teacher stilled his audience down for one of the socks to tell a story. Over the PA came a rich Dublin brogue, excitable and weary, a voice that had learnt to speak that way, that had likely been on a stage, I figured, moving through the foyer from my office to poke my head in the enormous double doors. It was a voice I fell in love with instantly, not for my own sake, but for the sake of Sam Beckett suddenly incarnate, for Krapp’s sake, whose last tape I immediately decided Patrick would record.
We had the first of what became a thousand chats when I went backstage after his exultant audience had left; his array of pirates, farmers, policemen and baddies had sent the kids, their teachers and parents singing back to their classrooms on the other side of the massive red-concrete compound.
Paddy told me he had worked with The Questor’s Theatre in London, had a fair bit under his belt, but not for a few years. He wouldn’t agree to Krapp on the spot – I like the commitment that impulse brings – he took a week to read the play and think his schedule through. He found me after a Thursday whole-school assembly and told me in that rich singsong brogue that he wanted to play Krapp, to come out of retirement to become a doughty old fart, lover, perv, raconteur and clown whose best days are long gone.
What I had observed about Patrick early doors – the eccentricities and distantiations – still obtained; but having finally spoken to him, I saw them as precisely the qualities I was looking for in an actor. What I had not expected were his eloquence and deliberation. Here was a thinker and a doer and a man of the theatre which is doing, not thinking, but after rehearsals we wouldn’t be short of the kind of chat I love.
Paddy was a dream to direct, not because he did everything I wanted, but because he’d lived and loved and lost and regretted, because he showed his hand at every opportunity during rehearsals. I didn’t have to drag anything out of him, it was already there, waiting for Krapp. A dream in that sense. He also became a great friend and confident, rich in wisdom with the sharp-wit and wink of the Irish.
Here’s to you, Paddy McQuillan, to your comradeship, your shoulder, your ear and your heart during the rest of my time in China. And here’s to those white cowboy boots we spotted in a window taking a break from rehearsals one afternoon. We both stopped, both nodded, no words were exchanged, we went in and we bought the boots which it turned out were three sizes too big for you; no matter, the absurdity invited the sheriff-clown, a sense of something wild, and the knowledge that our heads were tuned in to one another.